- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Walking out of Rotterdam’s central rail station, you have to weave your way through a giant building site just to catch a tram or reach a cafe.

Is this any way to arrive in a city celebrating a year of architecture that aims to showcase its urban landscape?

Well, actually it is.

Wrecking balls and scaffolding are as much a part of this city as the kinked pylon of the Erasmus Bridge, which towers over the River Maas, and the water taxis and freight barges that ply the river’s murky waters.

“If a building doesn’t work, we tear it down and build a new one,” says Ossip van Duivenbode, a Rotterdam resident, architecture student and guide.

World War II also played a role. On May 14, 1940, a Nazi bombardment flattened buildings and sparked an inferno that destroyed most of the city center, creating an architects’ playground for postwar reconstruction.

“The bombing was good for the architects,” says Mr. van Duivenbode. “They said, ‘Finally, we can realize our dreams.’ ”

The result is a Dutch city totally different from the golden-age houses that teeter like drunken sailors over Amsterdam’s canals or the stately palaces and parliament of The Hague.

Though most of the country’s cities are resolutely low-rise, Rotterdam reaches for the sky.

The Kop van Zuid on the banks of the Maas River, which carves the city in two, is known as Manhattan on the Maas. Its towering office and apartment blocks flanking historic brownstone warehouses have been turned into swanky homes.

The mix of buildings that survived the bombing, and modern residential and office blocks such as Renzo Piano’s “leaning” KPN tower, combine to make Rotterdam a magnet for building buffs.

This being the Netherlands, the best way to see it is by bike. Picking up rented green bikes near central station, a group of reporters recently set off with Mr. van Duivenbode to see the city’s architectural highlights.

One of the first stops was De Unie, a cafe with a Mondrianesque facade designed in 1924 by Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud. The original building, a classic example of the Dutch movement De Stijl, was destroyed in the bombing, and a reconstruction was built in 1986.

As part of its City of Architecture year, which has just kicked off, Rotterdam has created a Web site — www.rotterdam2007.nl — packed with information such as the Sites and Stories interactive map that is linked to MP3 files with descriptions and anecdotes about 40 of the city’s most interesting buildings.

The sound file for De Unie includes Mr. Oud’s wife recounting how she once was asked if her husband, a municipal architect, could get rid of the cafe, which was considered a monstrosity by some townsfolk.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so — he designed it,’ ” the architect’s wife says.

The strangest buildings in the city must be the cube homes designed by Amsterdam architect Piet Blom in 1978.

Intended to look like a futuristic forest linking the old harbor with downtown, the neighborhood’s homes are all yellow, white and gray cubes perched at an angle on top of a central column and stairwell.

Inside, most of the walls slant away from the floors, creating a giddy feeling even when you’re standing still.

“Living here is a challenge,” says Ed de Graaf, sitting in one of the homes that is open to curious visitors. He concedes they are not to everybody’s taste: “Like with all extreme things, you either love them or you hate them.”

Cycling over the Willemsbrug across the Maas and turning right, you reach Wilhelminapier on the Kop van Zuid, a large urban development.

The street could be renamed Pritzker pier in honor of the prestigious architecture prize.

First there is the KPN tower by Mr. Piano (Pritzker Prize winner in 1998) and at the other end of the street is the World Port Center by the 1999 Pritzker winner, Britain’s Sir Norman Foster. Between the two, construction is planned for the Rotterdam, a multifunctional tower block featuring apartments, a cinema, restaurants and a hotel. It has been designed by Rotterdam-based 2000 Pritzker winner Rem Koolhaas, who was born in Rotterdam.

Mr. Piano’s tower features a facade that leans forward at a 6-degree angle and is propped up by a giant stake.

The facade is covered with green lights that can be programmed to create patterns and messages so that it can communicate with the city, says the telephone and Internet company that owns it.

Farther down the road is Mr. Foster’s imposing World Port Center, with its curved face seeming to point like a ship’s prow down the Maas toward Rotterdam’s container harbor. On the south side of the Wilhelminapier is the Montevideo apartment block designed by Francine Houben of Delft-based Mecanoo Architects. Slightly more than 500 feet tall, it is the Netherlands’ tallest residential tower.

Dwarfed between these two towers is the Hotel New York, once the headquarters of the Holland-America Line and departure point for thousands of Europeans from Rotterdam to a new life in the United States. It was built between 1901 and 1917 featuring many Jugendstil — similar to art nouveau — characteristics such as the flowing lines of its wrought-iron staircase. It fell into disuse as air travel displaced trans-Atlantic passenger ships, but it was painstakingly restored before reopening as a hotel and restaurant in 1993.

Crossing the Erasmus Bridge and heading back into town past the gently bobbing yachts of the Veerhaven, you reach the Westelijk Handelsterrein, a warehouse complex built in 1894 that survived the German bombers and was considered too good to tear down even by this city’s demolition enthusiasts.

Instead, it, like the Hotel New York, has been renovated and updated to house restaurants, art galleries and nightclubs for the city’s in-crowd.

From there, a quick pedal takes you to the Shipping and Transport College, which vies with the cube homes for the title of oddest building in the city.

The 230-foot tower, topped by a cantilevered conference room, looks like a giant periscope jutting out of the ground and peering down the Maas.

Materials used inside the building include sail canvas and wood, underscoring a nautical theme that recurs in many of the city’s buildings, from balcony railings to circular portholelike windows.

“For many Dutch architects, shipbuilding is an ideal,” says Mr. van Duivenbode. “It’s seen as a perfect combination of form and function.”

• • •

Rotterdam City of Architecture: For a full program of cultural events during Rotterdam’s year of architecture, visit www.rotterdam2007.nl.

Rotterdam is reached easily by train from any city in the Netherlands and from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. You can drive to Rotterdam in less than an hour from Amsterdam if you avoid the morning and evening commutes.

The city has a network of buses, trams and a subway with the central railway station as a hub.

Bicycle tours can be organized through Rotterdam ByCycle next to Central Station, www.rotterdambycycle.nl, or phone 31/10-465-2228. The company also rents bikes to groups of six or more people. Booking is recommended.

Architectural tours with a guide can be booked through Rotterdam ArchiGuides, www.rotterdam-archiguides.nl or phone 31/10-433-2231. The company organizes tours by bus, bike or on foot. Call ahead for reservations and to check times. Until October, there is a bike tour every Sunday.

For sleeping in a piece of Rotterdam’s architectural heritage, try the Hotel New York, www.hotelnewyork.nl/eng. Rooms start at $142 per night. Or try the Bilderberg Parkhotel, www.bilderberg.nl/hotels/parkhotel— with rooms starting at about $107 per night.

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